Utqiaġvik children greet the return of the sun with traditional dance

As more than 400 children in Utqiaġvik raised their hands toward the ceiling of the school’s gym to greet the sun, the light shone through the windows a little brighter.

On a brisk, windy afternoon last week, Utqiaġvik saw its first sunrise in over 60 days, and residents celebrated the end of polar night this week with the traditional “Welcome Back the Sun” dance. More than 30 students and teachers at Iḷisaġvik College danced outside the campus on Jan. 23, and Fred Ipalook Elementary School students gathered on Jan. 25 at the gym to dance and escape the cold.


“It’s a unique experience when we’re welcoming back the sun through dance, and everyone’s in unison,” said Vernon Charles Elavgak, traditional drummer and Iñupiaq teacher at Fred Ipalook. “The best moment was when the kids’ hands were motioning to the sun rise and set, and you could see the light become brighter.”

While on Jan. 23, the town was scheduled to light up at 1:03 p.m. for about an hour, “because of the cloud cover, nobody was able to see the sun, but the sky was really pretty, and it was really bright.” said Natasha Itta, community education facilitator at Iḷisaġvik. Itta helped organize the annual college celebration with the dance that the Iñupiaq people have been performing since time immemorial.

“The return of the sun signifies a new beginning. It signifies a new season. It signifies the start of something new. And it also signifies the return of all the animals that come back to northern Alaska,” she said. “My tuttu (caribou) are coming back, my fish are coming back, our spring whales are coming back, and our geese and our ducks.

“Everything is eventually going to come back, and for me, that’s exciting,” she said. “You just understand that we have to go through the dark season in order to get to the light.”

Welcome Back the Sun dance, Iḷisaġvik

Outside of Iḷisaġvik, three men were drumming while the rest repeated the motions of the dance, starting with moving their right hand down to the left and mirroring that with the other hand — the motion of the sun hitting the ground, Itta said. Then dancers shaped a semi-circle above them, showing the sunshine. A walking motion followed, symbolizing going outside to enjoy the sun. Finally, women gracefully waved their hands as if in an invitational song, and the men moved their arms from side to side and stomped their feet, “making the song of strength,” Itta said.

The song went on for two rounds, first in a softer tone, and then with the men hitting the drum and singing a little louder, Itta said.

The movements of the dance are also similar to the motions of throwing the sealskin onto a board for bleaching and then celebrating its successful tanning, Itta said.

“A lot of Eskimo dances are very versatile,” she said. “It can tell many stories with just that one song.”

Some Utqiaġvik residents, including the leader of the Barrow Dancers, Fred Elavgak, know the song’s name as “Bleaching the Sealskin.” He said that about a hundred performers will be dancing the “Welcome Back the Sun” at Kivgiq, the biennial Messenger Feast scheduled in Utqiaġvik from Feb. 1 to 4.

Most Utqiaġvik residents have known the “Welcome Back the Sun” dance since childhood — like Itta, who remembers learning it at about 3 years old from Elders and skilled dancers. But for Evelyn Okesene, this week marked the first time she’d heard about it.

“I was amazed and shocked there was a dance to welcome the sun back,” she said. “At first, I was a bit confused until Natasha Itta explained what we were performing for and the true meaning behind it. This dance was everything and I felt so much joy.”

Welcome back the sun

At Fred Ipalook Elementary on Jan. 25, Jaime Patkotak led the dance, while Vernon Charles Elavgak, Timothy Ferreira and Jacob Calderwood were drumming. In previous years, the school did not have as many drummers, Calderwood said, and this is why the dance felt more powerful this year.

“The more drummers you have, the better,” he said. “Then you feel that heartbeat in the room.”

Since fall 2020, the school has been cataloging the dances that students perform throughout the year, Calderwood said.

The project started out of necessity, Calderwood said: The school was hurting for drummers to accompany the dances and instructors to teach students movements for Christmas programs, the “Welcome Back the Sun” dance and any other performances.

During the pandemic, several people — including Vernon Charles Elavgak; his wife, Rachel Goodwin; and Calderwood, Ovluaq Akpik and Josiah and Atqaqsaaq Patkotak — gathered in the school and made several audio recordings of only the drumming, just a few songs at first and then 20 compositions total. Then, several people came back and recorded the dances on video as well.

Now, Iñupiaq instructors as well as classroom teachers at Fred Ipalook Elementary can play the video, and children can follow along.

“My kids love to sayuq (motion dance) in my room and they ask every day if we’re going to sayuq,” Elavgak said. “The questions never stop coming, including the motions and why they are. These motion songs we teach aren’t just educational, but fun. They learn, they enjoy, and we have a grand time together.”

Welcome Back the Sun, Iñupiaq dance, Fred Ipalook Elementary School

With the songs and dances recorded, Calderwood said the school does more dancing activities, and the kids know the dances better and feel more confident in their ability.

“Anytime we have the kids participate in the culture by dancing, it’s just an amazingly powerful energy in the room,” he said. “The kids are proud of themselves dancing.”

Alena Naiden

Alena Naiden writes about communities in the North Slope and Northwest Arctic regions for the Arctic Sounder and ADN. Previously, she worked at the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.